How to Craft the Ideal Backfield in Today’s NFL | Bleacher Report

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The NFL in 2022 is more pass-heavy than ever before. Last
year, 10 teams averaged over 250 passing yards per game. Only half that many
teams averaged 140 yards per game on the ground. But running the ball hasn’t
fallen completely to the wayside, nor has an effective run game lost its
importance. Of the NFL’s top-10 rushing teams in 2021, seven made the playoffs.

What has changed is the route that teams are taking
to build that solid run game. The days of the 350-carry workhorse back aren’t
completely dead, but they are falling by the wayside. Nowadays, it’s about
committee attacks. Passing-down specialists. And the importance of depth.

Old-school football hasn’t disappeared from the NFL. But
more and more each year, it has a new-look feel to it.


Bye-Bye Bellcows

One decade ago, Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian
Peterson became the most recent running back to win the NFL’s Most Valuable
Player award. That year, Peterson gained 2,097 yards on the ground—just eight
yards shy of Eric Dickerson’s single-season record. Peterson did so in true
workhorse fashion, carrying the ball 348 times, or 21.75 carries per game. He
was one of five backs to eclipse 300 carries, and 10 backs to amass at least
275.

Tom Dahlin/Getty Images

Fast forward 10 years, and there were just two running backs
who topped 300 carries—Jonathan Taylor of the Indianapolis Colts and Najee
Harris of the Pittsburgh Steelers. Joe Mixon of the Cincinnati Bengals joined
them as the only other back to hit 275 carries. Taylor led the NFL in carries
per game, at 19.5 carries per game.

Admittedly, part of the drop in carries can be explained by
backs catching more short passes. If you add receptions to the mix, there were
eight running backs that averaged 20
touches a game in 2021. It’s the same number as in 2017. But per StatMuse,
back in 2012 there were 10, and two more backs (Knowshon Moreno and Ray Rice)
had 19.9.

By any objective measure, running back workloads are being
scaled back. And it’s not hard to see why.

NFL teams are tired of their running backs getting hurt.

Last year’s leader in touches per game was Derrick Henry of
the Tennessee Titans, at a gaudy 29.6 per contest. The year before, Henry
carried the ball 378 times on the way to over 2,000 rushing yards. But that put
Henry on a collision course with “The Curse of 370.” It’s a term
coined by Aaron
Schatz of Football Outsiders for the drop-off in production for backs the
year following a 370-carry campaign. The historical data isn’t pretty.\

Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

Sure enough, Henry made it eight games into the 2022 season
before breaking a bone in his foot.

Dalvin Cook is one of the most talented runners in the NFL,
with three straight 1,000-yard carries on his NFL resume. But he has also
missed time in all five professional seasons, and as he told Chris
Tomasson of the St. Paul Pioneer-Press, the reality is that running
back may well be the most fragile position in the game.

“We’re in the NFL. Things happen. Guys go down,’’ Cook said.


Sharing the Wealth

As more and more teams get hip to the notion of scaling back
the workload of their lead back, we’re seeing a lot more two and even
three-headed backfields.

Last season, there were a whopping 53 running backs that
totaled more than 100 carries. Fifty-five backs had more than 100
total touches). There were 10 NFL teams that had two running backs who
ended the season with over 150 total touches. A whopping 21 teams had two backs
with 100 touches. And two teams (the Philadelphia Eagles and Cleveland Browns)
had three 100-touch running backs.

Granted, the splits in Philly and Cleveland were created in
part by injuries. So were some others. But both the Eagles and Browns have a
history of spreading the wealth in the backfield, and they aren’t alone.
Fantasy football managers may hate the idea of “running back by committee,”
but more and more NFL teams are embracing the idea.

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Last year, the Washington Commanders were not one of those
teams—Antonio Gibson dominated the backfield work and ranked fourth in the
league with 300 touches. But per Nick
Shook of NFL.com, head coach Ron Rivera told reporters at OTAs that the
team plans to involve more players in the run game in 2022.

“Well, I think for the most part, it’s going to be
by committee. Some of the things that we did in Carolina we’re trying to emulate,
you know, we had a good two-back system. We had, (former Carolina Panther
running backs DeAngelo) Williams and Jonathan Stewart, and we had Fozzy
Whittaker as a change of pace, third-down type of guy. Well, you look at what
we have right now, you can say we have the same thing.”

“So just feel that, you know, it’s one of those
things that you’re going to go with, who’s hot, who’s rolling, you know, who’s
doing the good things. And then you’re going to have to spell that guy. I mean
in this league today, you know, you just can’t have one primary back. You’ve
got to have a plethora of them. And we just feel it’s a very good room right
now.”

It’s not just a matter of spreading the wealth during games,
either. NFL teams are prioritizing depth almost as much as talent. The Browns
gave D’Ernest Johnson up to $2.4
million this year to be the team’s third-string back. The Eagles handed
Boston Scott $1.75
million to do that same thing.

Teams don’t want two good running backs. They want three.
Four. As many as they can get their hands on.


The NFL’s Best Backfields

Having a backfield where one back handles most of the
rushing work while another takes care of the third-down pass-catching role is
fine. Dandy even. Ben
Linsley of Pro Football Focus ranked an Indianapolis Colts backfield where Jonathan
Taylor and Nyheim Hines have those roles as the second-best unit in the league.

But another reason why the Colts rank as high as they do is
the presence of a reserve back in Philip Lindsay who has topped 1,000 rushing
yards twice in his career. The perfect NFL backfield doesn’t just have talent.
Or even depth. It has both—sometimes in the form of a No. 2 back who can step
into a featured role without the team missing a beat.

With that in mind, here’s a look at the five best backfields
in the NFL in 2022.

Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

5. Minnesota Vikings (Dalvin Cook, Alexander Mattison, Kene
Nwangwu

When he’s healthy, Cook is one of the game’s best—a do-it-all
back who is as dangerous catching passes as he is running between the tackles.
He’s the clear lead runner in the Twin Cities. But Mattison has shown to be
invaluable reserve who can step into Cook’s role without the run game falling
apart. Cook also told Tomasson that the Vikings plan to involve Nwangwu more in
the offense this season.

Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

4. Dallas Cowboys (Ezekiel Elliott,
Tony Pollard, Rico Dawdle)

Elliott’s numbers took a dip in 2021—his 58.9 rushing yards per
game was a career low. But the 26-year-old still topped 1,000 rushing yards and
scored 10 times on the ground, and Cowboys head coach Mike McCarthy has raved
about how Elliott has looked in OTAs. Pollard is one of the league’s more underrated
running backs. He averaged a career-best 5.5 yards per carry a year ago, and
per Linsley only Nick Chubb and Derrick Henry have averaged more yards after
contact per attempt than Pollard since 2019.

Justin Casterline/Getty Images

3. Indianapolis Colts (Jonathan Taylor, Nyheim Hines, Phillip
Lindsay)

Dating back to his time at the University of Wisconsin, you’d be
hard-pressed to find a more productive running back than Taylor, who led the
NFL last year with 1,811 rushing yards in 2021. He also amassed over 2,100
total yards and scored a whopping 20 total touchdowns. Hines is an excellent
receiver and pass-protector who has topped 60 catches in two of four pro
seasons, while Lindsay eclipsed 1,000 rushing yards in each of his first two
years in Denver.

Dylan Buell/Getty Images

2. Green Bay Packers (Aaron Jones, A.J. Dillon, Kylin Hill)

Given all the issues the Packers have at wide receiver, Green Bay
may well wind up fielding the most productive one-two running back group in the
league in terms of total yards this season. The team doesn’t have a true
“lead” back, with Jones and Dillon garnering an almost identical number
of touches a year ago. Both backs topped 1,100 yards last season, and the pair
combine for 17 touchdowns. This is a two-headed attack in the truest sense.

Nick Cammett/Getty Images

1. Cleveland Browns (Nick Chubb, Kareem Hunt, D’Ernest Johnson)

Saying that the Cleveland backfield is stacked doesn’t do the team
justice. Chubb may be the most talented pure runner in the entire NFL—he averaged
a gaudy 5.5 yards per carry in 2021 and has never averaged less than five yards
a pop in a season. Hunt is a former NFL rushing king and excellent receiver who
topped 1,100 total yards with 11 scores two years ago. Johnson averaged 5.3
yards on his 100 carries in 2021 and averaged over 120 yards per game in his
two starts.


A perfect backfield is much like a perfect quarterback—every team strives to have one, but none do. However, the teams listed above lay the blueprint for coming close.

Stockpile talent. Add players who can serve in multiple roles. And have a viable Plan B available in case your lead back goes down.

Do that, and teams can make some hay on the ground.

And while that may seem old-fashioned, it also remains a path to success on Sundays.

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